Background

Originally presented as a series of British radio addresses during WWII, the 1952 edition retains much of the original conversational feel. While Lewis reworked the language to drop things that work better in speech than writing (contractions and italics for stressed words), he failed to add what this book truly needs in its written form: references and citations. Lewis feels it unnecessary even to quote the Bible in defense of his statements. When he makes claims outside of Christianity, his lack of research becomes almost painful. For example, in his chapter “The Great Sin,” (p.121) speaking of pride, Lewis says “there is one vice…of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves.” Apparently Lewis is unfamiliar with any of the core teachings of Buddhism or its near obsession with pride. And again in “The Three-Personal God” (p.161) when he says “it is only the Christians who have any idea of how human souls can be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves” without any hint of the many teachings of Islam on the subject of Paradise.

Repeatedly, Lewis presents ideas that are common to religions around the world, and then claims they are the exclusive domain of Christian thought. When he once is willing to admit the similarities, he calls them “good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.” So we learn that any similarities with religions after Christ are due to copying of Christianity, and any before Christ are also due to copying of Christianity. Such is most of Lewis’ apology, and I call them Lewis’ “Just So Stories.” He cites nothing, hardly even the Bible, gives not even examples; we are to accept what he says because he says so.

Book One: Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe

In this section, Lewis tries to establish the idea of a “Law of Nature” by which he means our moral sense of right and wrong. He claims that this is just like the physical laws of the universe (gravitation, heredity, chemistry), except for a key difference: Humans have the power to break this law. This is the point at which Lewis first shows his complete misunderstanding and misuse of science and scientific terms. If some entities do not conform to a scientific “law” then the “law” is incorrect. Nothing in the universe violates gravity. When we find things that do, we know that our understanding of gravity is incorrect, not that they are violating a universal law. Lewis acknowledges this difference, but carries on as though you could ignore such a fundamental problem with his thesis.

Putting aside the nonsense of this being a scientific “law,” Lewis raises an important point: humans do appear to have a kernel of universally agreed-on morality. While Lewis never gives a clear statement of what moralities he considers to be part of this “Law of Nature,” prohibitions against lying, cheating, stealing and killing (at least those close to you) are seen in every culture. Given the broad differences in the cultures of the world, it seems unlikely that these are simply social conventions. That our “human nature” are at odds with our broad “sense of right” is an important point of humans. Lewis is correct that in every culture humans say they should do one thing, but actually do something else. Having made this point, Lewis immediately jumps the rails by saying that this proves that this “sense of right” originates outside of humans. He claims morality cannot be instinct, because “doing right” often conflicts with other instincts, and only through something beyond instinct could we choose which to follow. One presumes that a higher power must also be involved when I decide whether I am more hungry or sleepy. He claims morality cannot be social convention because then “there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality.” Lewis includes no reference to Hitler’s own interpretation of “Christian morality” in creating “Nazi morality.” Nor does he identify this “savage morality” or explain how it is inferior to “civilized morality.” As with most of this section, the reader is supposed to understand that the 20th Century English sense of right and wrong is correct and universal, and that the only question is why people fail to follow what they “know” to be right.

Near the end of Chapter 2 (p.14), Lewis makes a statement that deserves discussion and quoting at length:

…one man said to me, “three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?” But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did–if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather–surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did?

This statement is really incredible. Much research and argument could go into whether or not charges of specific maleficium (malevolent magic) rather than just heresy was required in order to be convicted of witchcraft. But Lewis’ uses that as a huge loophole to avoid the entire question. He turns “Was it right to execute heretics?” into “Was it right to execute murderers?” Then he brushes the whole thing away by saying that there are no witches despite the Bible’s several clear statements that there are. I am not ignoring the realities of the witch trials (mostly assaults on poor, old and defenseless women), but in discussing the morality of the witch trials we must consider them in their intended form. And that intended form was to execute heretics, not just those “who had sold themselves to the devil…to kill their neighbours….” Lewis never answers this deep and critical question. (For a deeper discussion of the related Exodus 22:18, see “Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live”.)

In Chapter 4 (p.22), Lewis sums up his understanding of science:

Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, “I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2.20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so-and-so,” or “I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such-and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so.”

Never does Lewis mention hypotheses or how science builds and tests them, or even the more basic understanding that science is about finding useful patterns. To Lewis, science is just cataloging facts and this shows up repeatedly. On p.62, Lewis explains that trusting what Jesus said (ignoring whether we know what Jesus said) is no different than trust what scientists or historians say. The fact that what the scientist or historian says is based on evidence that can (and should) be independently verified is lost on Lewis.

In the endnote to Chapter 4 (p.26), Lewis discusses the Shavian Life Force or Creative Evolution. Earlier he divided all human belief into either materialistic, by which he means there is absolutely no point to anything and the universe is a “fluke,” or the religious in which there is a purposeful mind behind everything which “is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another.” Here in the endnote he concedes the middle-path of a striving but not fully conscious life force. He still ignores all other possibilities (a god who created the universe and then left, or numerous supernatural gods, etc.), and thus suggests that “materialism” (nihilism) and “religion” (Christianity) are two ends of a one-dimensional spectrum and all other ideas are between them. After discussing Creative Evolution for a moment, he tells us that “the Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you…. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement in wishful thinking the world has ever seen?” This is the extent of his actual criticism. Never does he give an explanation for why Creative Evolution is not true, only that he finds it unsatisfying. We’ll see this approach again on page 40 when he dismisses other ideas he finds unsatisfying are mere “boys’ philosophies.” Whether an idea is actually true does not seem to matter much to Lewis, only whether it matches up with what he has already decided the universe must be like.

Chapter 5, the end of book one marks a turning point. In this chapter, Lewis finally gives up the facade of philosophy and moves fully to preaching. He draws us a picture of God, claiming it is the only possible picture to draw given the “facts” we have to this point, and that picture should make us hopeless. We must realize that there is nothing we can possibly do to be good, and we must realize that this God Lewis has drawn for us demands that we be absolutely good. No reasons are given for this latter fact. Now that he has brought us to hopelessness, we can finally have hope because “when you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor.” Of course when you are truly hopeless you will also listen to the quack. And quackery is exactly what Lewis will now begin to provide us.

Links

Continue with Book Two.